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“Same God” for Muslims and Christians?
Over the last decade or two, the question of whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God has reared its head at fairly frequent intervals. A recent contribution to the debate, published in March 2021, is Andy Bannister’s Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God? The Autumn 2019 issue of Foundations, included an article by Tim Dieppe, focusing on Paul’s Areopagus address in Acts 17, which argued that Paul’s speech cannot be used to support the position that Muslims and Christians worship the same God. Many others from a conservative evangelical theological background dealing with this issue respond in the negative, arguing that Muslims and Christians do not worship the same God. For example, see Al Mohler’s article in Decision Magazine or this interview with Pastor John Piper on Desiring God.
I appreciate the concern of these writers to avoid a theological pluralism that views every spiritual path as valid and a theological fuzziness that treats doctrine as of minor importance. I also appreciate that these writers and speakers desire above all to defend and proclaim the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ and his Gospel. I share this concern and desire. However, I believe that the assertion that Muslims and Christians worship different gods is deeply problematic both theologically and practically.
Before I delve into my reasons, I want to provide some caveats:
- I do not believe that anyone can be saved through Islam, or indeed any other religious system (including Christianity). People can only be saved through Jesus Christ. My heart’s desire and prayer for Muslims is that they come to faith in Jesus Christ and experience salvation through him.
- I do not believe that Muslim and Christian views of God are more or less the same, or that the differences are minor and unimportant. There are some very significant differences. Theology, including theology proper, is of the utmost importance. This also applies to differences among Christians in their understanding of God.
- Within Christianity and Islam, there are diverse views on the nature of God, so my main focus will be on what may be termed the theological mainstreams of both faiths, recognizing the problems of defining and delimiting these mainstreams.
- I use ‘worship’ in the sense of a human activity that is directed toward God. Not all worship is acceptable to God, as Isaiah 29:13 indicates: The Lord says: ‘These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me. Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught.’
Indeed, as the Lord Jesus said, the only way to the Father is through him (John 14:6).
Use of Analogy
Andy Bannister writes,
Do Muslims and Christians also agree on the nature and character of that god? In short, do they worship the same god, or is Allah (the name the Qur’an uses for god) very different from Yahweh (the name by which the god of the Bible identifies himself)? (66)
Bannister goes on to use the analogy of two people talking about their friend Ahmad. They each describe Ahmad in mutually incompatible terms (tall/very short, etc.) until they come to the realization that they are talking about two entirely different individuals who happen to share the same name (73). Nowhere in his book, does Bannister consider an alternative analogy; that these two persons’ different and incompatible descriptions of Ahmad is due to at least one of them having an incomplete and defective recollection of the same individual.
Here is my attempt at an alternative analogy.
I have never met Albert Einstein – he died before I was born. I am also not a physicist, so my understanding of Einstein’s theory of relativity is sketchy. Compared to a close friend and colleague of Einstein who, let’s say, had an excellent understanding of his work, my knowledge of the man and his work is extremely limited. I know a little about him but never knew him. However, if his friend and I refer to Albert Einstein, it is one and the same Albert Einstein we refer to, even though our knowledge of him varies widely.
Suppose I extend the metaphor. Suppose I have some wrong information about Einstein, about some details of his personal life and also some mistaken beliefs about his work as a physicist. Yet when I refer to Albert Einstein, it would still be the famous physicist I am speaking of.
It is possible for someone to believe in and worship the one true God, the only God, but to do so with inadequate knowledge and some mistaken ideas, and also without personal knowledge of God – they may know something about God, but they don’t know him.
Denial of the Deity of Christ and the Trinity
Many objections to the view that Muslims and Christians worship the same God are argued on the basis that Muslims deny the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ.
These objections sometimes fail to recognize adequately the progressive and cumulative nature of Biblical revelation. Old Testament saints did not have a clear understanding of some of the beliefs which were much later formulated as trinitarian doctrine, because these beliefs hadn’t been revealed at that stage of redemptive history. For Jesus’ disciples, understanding of Jesus’ deity did not happen on the day they met him. The identity of Jesus seems to have been something they wrestled with – “Who is this? Even the wind and the waves obey him” (Mark 4:41). It is probably only after the resurrection that they come to worship Jesus as God (see, for example, John 20:28).
Post-Pentecost Jews Who Rejected Jesus
It could be argued that these Old Testament believers would not have rejected the doctrine of the trinity had it been presented to them, and indeed, the disciples do come to acknowledge Jesus’ deity and worship him. But this cannot be said of those Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah, both during his public ministry, but especially after his resurrection and ascension and Pentecost. These were Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah, let alone as divine. And if they rejected that Jesus is divine, it follows that they would also have rejected the doctrine of the Trinity.
Yet in all the interactions we find with these Jews in the Gospels on the lips of Jesus, or in Acts and the Epistles in the speeches and writings of the apostles, there is never any hint of, “you Jews are worshipping the wrong god, we’re telling you about the right God.”
On the contrary, Paul writes, “Brothers and sisters, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for the Israelites is that they may be saved. For I can testify about them that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rom 10:1-2).
The God the Israelites are zealous for is clearly the same God that Paul worships. Their problem is that their knowledge of God is defective – “their zeal is not based on knowledge.”
The clearest example of this is Paul’s own experience as recorded in his letters and in Acts. When Saul of Tarsus set out from Jerusalem to Damascus, he hated Jesus of Nazareth. He utterly rejected the idea that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah, let alone that he was in any sense divine. Any early expression or formulation of what we now call the trinity, he would have rejected outright as being blasphemous nonsense. If you argue that as a Jew who believed in the Old Testament, he might have had some sense of plurality within the One God,[i] he would have utterly rejected that Jesus had anything to do with that plurality, so he cannot be regarded as some kind of proto-trinitarian.[ii]
As we know, by the time Saul had arrived in Damascus and regained his sight through the ministry of Ananias, everything had changed. And yet we find no hint in his writings or anywhere else in the New Testament that Saul worshipped one god when he left Jerusalem and then worshipped a totally different god (the true God) by the time he was healed by Ananias in Damascus.
On the contrary, when Paul addresses a crowd of hostile Jews in Jerusalem, he says, “I was just as zealous for God as any of you are today” (Acts 22:3). The implication is that it is the one true God that they and Paul were zealous for. In fact, the whole tenor of this speech in which Paul is defending himself against the accusations of the Jews, is to emphasize that Paul is a devout Jew who serves the God of Israel. There is not the slightest hint that Paul and his fellow followers of Jesus on the one hand, and those Jews who were hostile to Jesus on the other, worship different gods.
If Jews who rejected Jesus as Messiah and as divine, and thus by extension would have rejected the trinity, can be said to worship the same God as Paul and the other early Christians, Muslim denial of the trinity and the deity of Christ cannot be used as a basis for denying that Muslims and Christians seek to worship the same God.
Of many Muslims also, it could be said, “that they are zealous for God, but their zeal is not based on knowledge” (Rom 10:2).
Some may object that Islam is much further removed from Christianity than Judaism is because Islam does not recognize the Old Testament.[iii]
I will attempt to answer this, but first, two comments:
First, this objection cannot be based on Muslim denials of the deity of Christ or the trinity, because Jews such as Saul of Tarsus, before his experience on the Damascus Road, would have denied these doctrines. So the basis of this argument has to be on grounds other than Muslim denial of the trinity and the deity of Christ.
Second, do Muslims in fact reject the Old Testament?
The relationship of Islam to the Old Testament and indeed the New Testament is somewhat ambiguous. True, most Muslims never read the Bible and are often ignorant of its contents, and most are told that the Scriptures of Jews and Christians are to some degree corrupted.
Andy Bannister speaks exclusively in terms of the Qur’an displacing the Bible. That has been the majority opinion among scholars throughout most of Islamic history, but it is arguably not the view of the Qur’an itself. The Qur’an speaks of the Torah, Psalms, and Gospel[iv] which the Jews and Christians possessed at the time of Muhammad as being a revelation, light, and guidance from Allah.[v] When Muslims take this Qur’anic testimony seriously and read the Bible, accepting it as from God (as some indeed have done), the effects can be revolutionary, not least for their understanding of God.
But let’s for the moment grant the validity of the objection that Islam is much further removed from Christianity than Judaism is because Islam does not have the Old Testament revelation about God. In general, this approach tends to emphasize the differences between Islamic and Christian theology and minimize any similarities.
Bannister takes this approach saying, “There are five key characteristics of Yahweh, the God of the Bible, that are central to his identity throughout the Old and New Testaments…”(100).
These five characteristics of the God of the Bible are, that he is relational, can be known, is holy, is love, and that he has suffered. Bannister maintains that the Qur’an teaches none of these things and therefore the God that it speaks of is a completely different being from the God of the Bible (ch 4).
In response, first, it is highly debatable that these are the five key characteristics of God in the Bible. They are all certainly hugely important, but what about God’s eternity, his almighty power, his wisdom, his mercy, or his justice? All of these attributes are surely vital to the Biblical portrayal of God – and they would be affirmed by most Muslims, even if they might understand some of these attributes somewhat differently. Indeed, some of them are actually understood differently within Christianity, as we will see.
Second, the distinctions between Muslim and Christian views of God are not quite as watertight as Andy Bannister makes out. I know Muslims who would speak of having a relationship with Allah or at least desiring to have one. Muslims speak to Allah in prayer. Mona Siddiqui writes, “there is no suggestion in the Qur’an that God wishes to reveal of himself just yet” (12, italics mine). That is quite different from saying that God cannot be known.
The highly popular Study Quran in its commentary on 18:31 says, “In Sufi interpretations, the various luxuries of the Garden as described in the Quran are understood to be symbols of the spiritual joys of witnessing God in all His Majesty and Beauty and of the intimacy, love, and union with God that the righteous will experience there” (741).
This suggests that in these particular Muslim interpretations, God is relational. The same volume, commenting on 10:100, says, “As the early Sufi figure Dhu’l-Nūn al-Miṣrī (d. 245/859 or 248/861) is reported to have said, ‘I came to know my Lord through my Lord. Had it not been for my Lord, I would not have known my Lord’ (al-Risālat al-qushayriyya [Damascus, 2000], 475)” (563).
This clearly reflects the belief among some Muslims at least, that God is knowable.
I asked a friend who is a Muslim cleric and who has studied for over a decade in Qom, the center for Shia training in Iran if it is possible to know God. His response was that it is possible to know God’s attributes but not his essence. While I personally don’t find this satisfactory, it is very close to the view of Basil the Great and much Eastern Christian theology (152-153).
In short, Bannister’s comparison of Muslim and Christian views does not do justice to the range of theological positions within either community.
Third, while the Qur’an never says, “God is love”, it does speak of God loving certain people and it also speaks of God as merciful. True, mercy is not the same as love, but there is a significant overlap. Neither is God’s love always seen as conditional in Islam. The Study Quran, commenting on 5:54, says, “the verse suggests, conversely, that God’s love of people precedes their love for Him. Because the verse seems to indicate that God’s love for a person must precede that person’s love for God” (306).
God’s love has not always been given prominence in Christian theology. Donald Macleod points out that, “The [Westminster] Shorter Catechism does not mention love in its list of divine attributes (Answer 4) and there is no chapter on it in either Charnock or Bavinck. All of these are content to subsume the divine love under the divine goodness” (230-231).
Presumably, neither the Catechism nor Charnock nor Bavinck would list love as being one of the five key characteristics of the God of the Bible.
Fourth, Bannister asserts that a crucial difference between the Bible and the Qur’an in their portrayal of God is that in the latter, God does not suffer. This is interesting because a large section of the Christian Church has traditionally maintained the impassibility of God – that God cannot and does not suffer. Do those Christians who believe in the impassibility of God believe in a different God from those Christians who believe that God is capable of suffering? It is, after all, a pretty significant difference in how we view God.
There is a danger of minimizing the differences between mainstream Christian and Muslim conceptions of God. There are major differences of huge significance. There is, however, an opposite danger of minimizing areas of common belief and overlap between the two conceptions of God and driving an absolute wedge between differences that may be matters of relative divergence or of varying emphases.[vi] In both Christian and Muslim understanding, God is one, eternal, self-existent, underived, creator, ruler, just, forgiving, all-knowing, merciful, just judge, and the one who raises the dead.[vii] I find it fascinating that when Bannister briefly speaks of God as Creator, he slips into speaking as if it is the same God that Muslims and Christians worship: “That God is the source of all that is, the ultimate ‘it’ behind all reality, the one who called into existence every particle and who wrote every law of physics – that God is the sole creator is something on which Muslims and Christians can wholeheartedly agree, a not unimportant point of contact between these two faith traditions.” (105).
Of course, the exact way in which these things are true of God and the degree to which they are emphasized varies between the two faiths, as indeed they do within those faith traditions, but these beliefs ought not to be discounted, and indeed, they can be built upon, adapted and developed as we try to communicate the Biblical vision of God to Muslims.
Non-Jews and Non-Christians in the New Testament
The New Testament provides us with some examples of dialogue with people who are neither Jewish nor Christian – with people who are further removed from Biblical revelation. These examples shed light on this issue.
Muslims have sometimes been compared with Samaritans, as Glasser and Kay argue. The Samaritans, by the first Century, were monotheistic. They had their own version of the Pentateuch but rejected the rest of the Hebrew Scriptures. There had been a long history of hostility between Jews and Samaritans which surfaces in the Gospels. Here is part of the conversation between the Lord Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well.
‘Sir,’ the woman said, ‘I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshipped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.’ ‘Woman,’ Jesus replied, ‘believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.’ (John 4:19-22)
This woman seems to assume that Jews and Samaritans worship the same God, but that the geographical center of worship is different. If they worshipped two utterly distinct deities, the locale would not be an issue.
Jesus makes it clear that he too regards Jews and Samaritans as worshipping the same God. “You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews.” They worship the same God, but the Samaritans do not know him, whereas the Jews do, “because salvation is from the Jews.” By this, Jesus probably means the whole narrative of Jewish and Israelite history found in the Old Testament through which God was revealing his salvation and which is fulfilled ultimately in the Messiah Jesus.
If the Samaritans worshipped a different god, who from the Biblical point of view would therefore be an idol, why make the point that the Samaritans did not know him? If it were a different god, Jesus would have said something like, “You Samaritans worship an idol/a false god.”
Jesus’ description of the Samaritans, “You worship what you do not know” fits the situation of many Muslims. They seek to worship God, the only God there is, but don’t know him—that is until they come to know him through the Messiah Jesus.
The Athenians whom Paul encountered in Acts 17 had a view of God much further removed from the Biblical revelation than the mainstream Islamic view is, yet Paul still sees a common object of worship. “For as I was walking around and looking carefully at your objects of worship, I found an altar with the inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. What you worship as something unknown – this is the one I am proclaiming to you” (Acts 17:23, my translation).
Paul proclaims to the Athenians the God whom they know of, but whom by their own admission, they do not know.
Their admission of ignorance about God allows Paul to reveal or proclaim what this God is like. It’s as if they have presented Paul with a blank page to fill with Biblical content about God.
Tim Dieppe seeks to argue against the idea that Paul was equating the Unknown God with Yahweh. Space does not permit a detailed refutation of Dieppe’s arguments, but he does seem to contradict his main thesis by conceding that,
In his speech, Paul attributes this quote to “some of your own poets”. In this way, he is again arguing against the charge of introducing a foreign god. He claims that some of their conceptions of God are correct: It is true that we are God’s offspring…
Paul builds on [the presence of the altar and the story regarding Epimenides behind it] by quoting from [Epimenides] in his speech. Paul may be hinting that the god who answered the prayers of Epimenides, whom they do not know and are not worshipping properly, is actually the God he is proclaiming…
What Paul did do is agree with an admission of ignorance about the nature of God in Athenian culture and proclaim that he is there to explain what this God, whom they are ignorantly attempting to worship, is really like (51-52).
What is interesting is that Paul does not introduce some entirely new God. He takes the truth they know, however limited it may be, and uses it to build a bridge to communicate the gospel.
John Stott comments, “… converts who turn to Christ from a non-Christian religious system, usually think of themselves not as having transferred their worship from one God to Another, but as having begun now to worship in truth the God they were previously trying to worship in ignorance, error or distortion” (285).
Joseph Cumming makes an observation about his own friends who are Muslim background believers in Christ (MBBs),
Nearly all my MBB friends agree that they did not truly know God before meeting Christ. Some say their worship of God was empty before they knew Christ, while others say it was meaningful but incomplete. But almost none say that in their Islamic piety they worshipped some false deity or idol (217-218).
Bible translators almost always use an existing word for God in the receptor language – usually the name or word for a high god. There is thus some continuity with the pre-Christian/pre-Bible translation view of God, although, of course, the task of translating and teaching the Bible will radically challenge previously held views about God. Professor Andrew Walls (speaking about the use of kurios in the New Testament) has said, “None of us can take in a new idea except in terms of the ideas we already have. Once implanted, however, this understanding of the word received a set of controls from its new biblical frame of reference. In time, much of the original [Greek pagan] loading of the word disappeared altogether.”
Many Muslims seek to worship God, the only God there is, but a God whom they do not know. Our task, like Paul’s, is to proclaim this God to them—to fill whatever concept people have of God with Biblical content and truth.
Practicalities in Communicating the Gospel
The Qur’an and most Muslims assume that, Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same God, although the former two groups are in error about him.[viii] The Qur’an says, ‘And say, “We believe in that which was sent down unto us and was sent down unto you; our God and your God are one, and unto Him are we submitters”’ (29:46); ‘God is our Lord and your Lord. Unto us our deeds, and unto you your deeds; there is no argument between us and you. God will gather us together and unto Him is the journey’s end’ (42:15).
For most Christians, the Qur’an’s view will not be conclusive, but it is significant as we seek to communicate Biblical truth with Muslims.
We create an enormous barrier to communication if our starting point is, “You Muslims are worshipping a different god from the God we worship. We worship the true God; you are therefore worshipping an idol or something that doesn’t exist.” Even if we don’t state it quite as bluntly as this, if we assume it and communicate it, there is a huge barrier to overcome.[ix]
How much better to start with the truth Muslims already have about God and use this to build a bridge for communicating Biblical teaching about God, correcting wrong ideas, and developing and bringing to focus indistinct ideas? It is, as we have seen, the way Jesus and Paul communicated.
This article is reposted with the permission of the author. It originally appeared in the Foundations Journal of Evangelical Theology.
[i] See, for example, Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: New Press, 2012), chapters 1-2. Boyarin, an orthodox Jewish scholar, argues that ideas of plurality within the one God and incarnation were reasonably widespread in Second Temple Judaism
[ii] Gerald R. McDermott builds on the work of scholars like Boyarin to argue that Jews and Christians worship the same God, but that Muslims do not. However, McDermott does not deal with the fundamental problem that any sort of proto-trinitarian belief that rejects outright that Jesus of Nazareth shares the identity of the one God is definitely not Biblical trinitarian belief; “Only Jesus’s identity separates Jews and Christians” – but if Jesus is in fact God incarnate, the second person of the trinity, that “only” is enormous! Gerald R. McDermott, “Jews and Christians Worship the Same God: Shared Revelation View,” in Same God? 97.
[iii] It should also be remembered that Judaism in New Testament times was far from monolithic, and included the Sadducees, who accepted only the Pentateuch as fully authoritative and denied the doctrine of the resurrection. See N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992), chapter 7.
[iv] Or ‘Taurat’, ‘Zabur’ and ‘Injil’. The Injil is used of the book Christians possessed in the seventh century, so appears to refer to the entire New Testament.
[v] See for example, Qur’an 3:3, 84; 4:47, 136; 5:46-48; 6:97, 154. Some recent Muslim scholars are taking this Qur’anic testimony seriously; see, for example, Abdullah Saeed (Sultan of Oman Professor of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Melbourne) “How Muslims View the Scriptures of the People of the Book: Towards a Reassessment?” in Religion and Ethics in a Globalizing World: Conflict, Dialogue, and Transformation (ed. L. Anceschi, J. Camilleri, R. Palapathwala, A. Wicking; London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), chapter 10, Kindle edition.
[vii] See Chawkat Moucarry, Faith to Faith: Christianity and Islam in Dialogue (Leicester: Inter-Varsity, 2001), 83-94.
[viii] There is debate as to the identity and theology of the Christians or Nasara mentioned in the Qur’an. See Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (London: Little, Brown, Kindle edition, 2012), 316-317.
[ix] A related but separate issue is that of language. These two issues are often confused, with questions being posed such as, “Is Allah the God and father of our Lord Jesus Christ?” All Arabic-speaking Christians and Arabic Bible translations use ‘Allah’ for God. So the answer to that question depends on your view of Allah. If you begin a conversation about God in Arabic with a Muslim, you will use ‘Allah’ – it is the only word in the language. He will assume you are talking about the same Being that he believes in and prays to. If that is not the case, it is incumbent on you to make that immediately clear. However, that will prove difficult; what word will you use instead? Throughout the history of Islam, Arab Christians have stuck with ‘Allah’.